Going solo in flight for the first time is a big milestone in the flight training process. There is no instructor, no one next to you available to ensure the flight is safe and monitored and guaranteed to end well. It's all up to you.
Today, or really yesterday, I left this planet on my own for the first time, even though it was only for several minutes and I'd remained above the surface at a height of only a little over one thousand feet, and only briefly (considering take off ascent and approach to landing).
I've been approaching this stage for a long time. I started doing circuits around Rockcliffe airport in late December.
The circuit pattern for Rockcliffe airport, as flown by me yesterday.
This followed with circuits at Gatineau airport, Ottawa airport, and Carp airport. Take-offs, crosswinds, downwinds, bases, and finals. Flare-outs. Overshoots. Slips. All winter and spring I've been doing rounded rectangles on the ground and in the air.
Part of the reason it's taken so many months is partly due to lack of money (especially thanks to the demise of my Mac and having to replace it in March) and partly due to the change of instructors partway through. My original instructor wanted me to get going on solo quickly and may have had me doing so a month ago had he not gotten a better job elsewhere back in March; my replacement, a senior person at the club, has a more all-around, experienced, perfectionist approach, and I'm largely glad he does. I went up and down with a lot of ease and no anxiety.
I spent late April and this month perfecting my approaches, flare-outs, and landings. Thanks to money I've made selling things on Kajiji, I went ahead and booked my lesson for yesterday, and it so happened to be the perfect day for me to go on my own for the first time.
It went as usual: I went up with the instructor and did several circuits. Almost no issues whatsoever. But when we took off again after this, he took control and had me fish my documents out of my bag. As a routine I've always kept my documents in my bag and brought it with me, because they are required on any solo flight, so as soon as he asked to see them, I knew what was coming next. I slightly screwed up the landing after that circuit as I dealt with a bout of anxiety, but resolved it afterwards to ensure I would do fine the next time. Doing fine meant that I wouldn't do a touch and go, but rather a full stop in order for my instructor to leave the plane for me to continue on one more time.
After he left...it all became somewhat easier.
I had to redo the run-down part of the checklist before taking off, but that was fine because I was simply using a list. Then I did my 360 look-around, taxied past the hold short line, radioed traffic about my intended take-off (back-tracking to the end of the runway), back-tracked, and then added full power. I took off.
Everything came with ease. The plane took off as it usually did, but it felt slightly lighter, and because everything is set up as a repetitive list of actions, it was all very simple. The controls felt easier to use, particularly the rudder pedals, and there was no expectation of approval or monitoring because everything I had to do was straightforward and set in pace, without being watched. I climbed, got to the required altitude, radioed my position, did my pre-landing checks (which I've done so many times it's all quick and memorized) and simply did the same things I've been doing every single other time. I set my airspeed and descent, and simply completed the circuit, very softly coming down to the runway easily and lightly. Landing felt a lot easier without the additional weight of a passenger next to me. I coasted down the runway, reducing speed, exited, radioed my clearance, and taxied back to the pumps. Taxiing felt so much easier. I didn't expect the lack of one person (who is not overweight or heavy at all) to make such a difference.
Of course, I got wet afterwards. My mother took video while my instructor took the traditional picture, which will end up on the club's Facebook page probably by tomorrow. My friend Alex, who elected to stay behind after his shift at dispatch and watch, did the soaking. It's almost entirely thanks to him that I decided I was going to learn to fly at the club; he happened to be on dispatch when I walked in on Canada Day last year, full of questions. He's since been the source of encouragement and warm advice.
The only unusual thing about all of this is that I can't muster up the feeling of how grand this milestone is. My close relatives are very happy for me, and even those I have on Facebook that I'm not close friends with have responded to the videos and pictures. When I was in the plane, even before taking off, I felt extremely excited at the fact I was taxiing on my own, or taking off or climbing on my own, but it was all in the moment. Now that it's all over with, I can more or less shrug it off. I try to think why, but I have little answer other than that it was pretty cool. It happened to take place on the 26th of May, a day I typically see notability for because I asked out a girl for the first time that day seven years ago. It just so happened to be that that day had the most perfect conditions for my first solo: Calm winds, directed perfectly straight down the runway - no crosswind at all - and perfect temperatures. Not too bad for moisture, and when I got soaked, I didn't get any chill afterwards.
I've been told that those who make solo are almost definitely on path to get their license, in the sense that a lot of people may attempt flight training only to find that they are physically or mentally incapable of dealing with it. It's why they structure the training to include lessons seen as the most frightening - spins, stalls, spirals, etc. - almost as early as possible. Able to take the feeling of lazily rotating vertically through the air in a spin? Okay, can you land an airplane given enough practice then? If so, no problem. What I find ironic is that as a kid I was afraid of most of the faster or active rides at midways and the Super Ex that used to come to Lansdowne Park each summer. Perhaps the difference here is nothing is nearly as startling in a plane; on a ride like a roller coaster you're often very suddenly subjected to G-forces, and that's what I was always fearful of. You don't get sudden G-forces that high in a plane, unless you happen to enter moderate to severe turbulence, and one of the objectives of flight is to avoid such circumstances.
What's next? I'll be soloing from now on in each successive lesson, to the point I won't have my instructor with me at all. The idea is that he'll be in the plane less and less.
That will be pretty awesome. Not as awesome as flying at night will eventually be, but great enough for now.